Russia vs Ukraine: Is diplomacy dead?

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Far from it. But the diplomacy of peace is in need of emergency resuscitation

Randolph MankAs a junior delegate to the Stockholm Conference on Confidence- and Security-building Measures and Disarmament in Europe in 1984-85, I had adopted the prevailing view that, with nuclear weapons in play, war in Europe was outmoded. That Stockholm dialogue was a step toward the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose job it was, and still is, to prevent war.

Fast forward to today. OSCE Chairman Bujar Osmani visited Kyiv on Jan. 16 to offer fulsome rhetorical support for Ukraine, but little else. From this and other failures, some say that diplomacy is dead. Far from it. If diplomacy is simply the management of relations between countries, the seemingly endless bilateral and NATO alliance meetings around escalating support for Ukraine demonstrate that the diplomacy of war has been nothing short of hyperactive. Russia, too, has been frantically trying to shore up support.

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It’s the diplomacy of peace that’s in need of emergency defibrillation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin started this fight last year, of course. In clear violation of international law and his own commitments in the 1994 OSCE Budapest memorandum, he ordered the invasion under the guise of protecting Russian minorities, “denazifying” Ukraine, and reuniting a faded empire.

Emboldened by the ease with which he had already invaded Georgia in 2008 and seized Crimea in 2014, and with growing paranoia about NATO encirclement of Russia, he charged for Kyiv. This time he met a formidable defence. He also inadvertently mobilized massive NATO and international support for Ukraine and triggered punishing sanctions on Russia. With other neighbours, Sweden and Finland, applying for NATO membership, his paranoia has thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As for peace diplomacy, the two sides at least agreed to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered by the UN and Turkey last August. It was extended for another 120 days in November. Then Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proposed a 10-point peace plan, rejected immediately by Russia because it entailed an immediate retreat, reparations, and war crimes trials. U.S. President Joe Biden didn’t endorse it specifically, though he indicated that the U.S. shares Ukraine’s vision. Seemingly throwing in the towel, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres simply said that chances for any peace talks are small.

Casualties, refugees, and destruction are the normal pain points that motivate the search for peace, though countries have historically absorbed extraordinary suffering without surrendering. Estimates vary wildly, but U.S. intelligence puts the current numbers of military and civilian casualties so far at 100,000 on each side. Almost eight million Ukrainian refugees have fled, and vital infrastructure has been significantly damaged.

For the defensive Ukrainian side, it’s a high-stakes matter of survival. The stakes of adventurism may be lower for the Russian invaders, but failure at this point would bring consequences, too. Hence, with apparent domestic support, Russia is regrouping over winter while continuing missile attacks on critical infrastructure and civilian targets in Ukraine.

How much worse can it get? The maximalist limit would be a nuclear attack. Some analysts assess this as a low to medium risk. But the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has nevertheless advanced the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds before midnight.

Short of such a catastrophe, the pain points of outsiders may count more in the end. The disagreement at the Ramstein conference last week over whether German or American tanks should be supplied first reveals the need for governments to navigate domestic political opposition to further escalation. Direct NATO military intervention remains a non-starter for now. But what would happen if the tide turned in Russia’s favour? Certainly, military mobilization of NATO troops is a clear redline, including for Canada.

But escalation is a dangerous and unpredictable trajectory. While hoping for Ukrainian military victory, other risks remain which could shift the preference towards peace. NATO members’ weapons supplies could be depleted beyond domestic security needs. The Russia-China relationship could lead to more material support from China. The Russian effort to de-dollarize international oil and circumvent U.S. sanctions could gain traction. Deeply indebted western nations could be tipped into deeper recessions by this expensive proxy war. And, of course, war could break out elsewhere.

So is peace diplomacy really dead? Unlike Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO have waffled on Russian regime change, war crimes trials, and the status of Crimea. That leaves the door open just a crack for eventual negotiations. After all, peace diplomacy often germinates in the fertile soil of ambiguity and blossoms in compromise. Sadly, the two neighbours, who obviously can’t change their geography, will continue to wage war for now, Ukraine justifiably and Russia not.

Randolph Mank is a former Canadian diplomat and business executive. He currently heads MankGlobal consulting, serves on boards, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

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